OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters deployed via C-5 from Fort Carson to Fort Bliss to conduct aviation reconnaissance operations

The U.S. military today plays a little-recognized role fighting the drug war in support of federal law enforcement agencies along the border with Mexico.

Joint Task Force North, or JTF North, is a U.S. joint service military command organized under U.S. Northern Command, or USNORTHCOM, based at Biggs Army Airfield in Fort Bliss, Texas.

“Our mission is to employ military capabilities to support law enforcement agencies and synchronization in the Northern Command’s area of responsibility,” Brig. Gen. Anthony R. Ierardi, commander of JTN North, told WND. “The purpose of all that is to deter and prevent what we describe as transnational threats to the homeland.”

Initially named Joint Task Force-6, the command was established by Gen. Colin Powell, then commanding general of the U.S. Army’s Forces command, Nov. 13, 1989, in response to President George H.W. Bush’s declaration of the “War on Drugs.”

JTF-6 was renamed JTF North in a ceremony Sept. 28, 2004, and its mission was expanded beyond the drug war to include providing homeland security support to the nation’s federal law enforcement agencies.

Ierardi explained his boss is Air Force Gen.Victor Renuart, commander of USNORTHCOM.”

“We are a subordinate command, so we work for Northern Command in providing the support that is requested by federal law enforcement in an appropriate way to deter and prevent threats to the homeland,” Ierardi said.

A major focus of JTF North traces back to the unit’s original purpose, to bring military support to federal law enforcement agencies fighting the drug war along the border with Mexico.

“Our principal customer is the U.S. Border Patrol,” Ierardi affirmed. “Our missions are for the most part along our southern border with Mexico, but also include missions along our northern border. We employ various military capabilities from the time the federal agency requests the support through the conclusion of the mission.”

FLIR equipped OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters were used to conduct nighttime aviation reconnaissance operations and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter support (in background) was provided by the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry
Division, based at Fort Riley, Kan.

JTF North has no operational military units assigned permanently to the command.

In a typical mission, a federal law enforcement agency requests military support along the border. If the request is deemed appropriate and within its authority, JTF North will then call upon military units, including Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, as needed, to volunteer to participate in the mission.

Many of the military participating units see the JTF North mission as an opportunity to train in advance of a scheduled assignment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Ierardi explained: “So, for example, if an Army aviation unit is in a cycle where they are preparing for deployment to Iraq, or Afghanistan, or anywhere for that matter, their commanders might deem that volunteering for a mission at JTF North might be good training, because of the opportunity to operate in a relevant environment that would replicate what they will face in the Middle East.”

Ierardi pointed to the Border Patrol as an example.

“An Army aviation unit participating in a Border Patrol mission organized by JTF North might see an increase in their night surveillance capabilities as a result of the experience,” he said. “And so it’s a neat way to match the need of the law enforcement agency with the extant capabilities that the military services can provide.”

Ierardi said it’s equally important to spell out what JTF North does not do.

Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24, based in Huntsville, Ala., constructed low water crossings, fences and roads along the Arizona-Mexico border

“We don’t arrest, apprehend or detain any persons that would be involved in potentially illegal activities,” he said. “We are not involved in searches and seizures. We don’t direct the operations of law enforcement agencies – again, we are in support.”

He also emphasized JTF North does not “collect or retain any information about U.S. persons, in accordance with very strict guidance that we have for intelligence oversight.”

Ierardi stressed JTF North operates within the restraints of the Posse Comitatus Act, 18 USC 1385, a Reconstruction Era law that restricts the use of U.S. military services to enforce civilian laws, except where expressly authorized by Congress or the Constitution.

The JTF North website lists the following capabilities as “operational support” the unit is prepared to offer federal law enforcement agencies: aviation transportation, including both insertion and extraction of personnel; aviation reconnaissance; air and maritime surveillance radar; unmanned aircraft systems; ground surveillance radar; listening post and observation post surveillance; ground sensor operations; and ground transportation.

In addition to operational support, JTF North is ready to provide intelligence and engineering support. It also offers general support, which includes mobile training teams in a wide range of areas from basic marksmanship training, to counter-drug field tactical police operations, to integrated mission planning and even tunnel detection.

Several illustrative missions are featured on the JTF North website.

In February, March and April 2007, JTF North provided Seabee engineering support from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24, based in Huntsville, Ala., assigned to construct low-water crossings, fences and roads along the Arizona-Mexico border.

In the same time period, a second JTF North mission, Operation Night Owl, involved the 1st Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment supporting the U.S. Border Patrol in the El Paso Sector by deploying OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters via C-5 transport aircraft from Fort Carson to Fort Bliss to conduct aviation reconnaissance operations.

Operation Night Owl also coordinated the involvement of UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter support provided by the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, based at Fort Riley, Kan.

“Our mission is to coordinate and employ Department of Defense support to federal law enforcement,” Ierardi said. “One of the sub-roles under USNORTHCOM’s mission is for support to civil authorities. We employ capabilities that seek to enhance law enforcement activities to interdict the threats, and we work with federal law enforcement investigative agencies to share information that would be appropriate to share.”

Federal law enforcement agencies seeking JTF North support must first provide written requests for support.

“We will collaborate with the partners that we support and they will provide us with written requests for support that allow them to increase capability in a particular area for a particular duration of time,” Ierardi said.

“The Department of Defense has rules for how we operate,” he explained. “In terms of all of the military that may participate in a particular support mission, Joint Task Force North has tactical control of military forces that might be employed in this mission. So, it’s my responsibility to ensure the safe and effective deployment of the units, while providing the commanders of that organization the opportunity to increase their readiness.”

Ierardi said that at the same time, JTF North “manages the interface with the federal law enforcement agencies to ensure those agencies are being employed correctly.”

“Our DNA, if you will, and the predominant gene that we carry today, is a counter-drug headquarters,” he stressed, referring back to the original reason the unit was created in 1989. “After 9/11 and the creation of Northern Command, it really made sense to take JTF-6, which was the preceding organizational name, and reorient the command to operate within the entire USNORTHCOM area of operational responsibility, not just along the southern border. Today, we also have the responsibility to monitor all transnational threats, including terrorists’ opportunities.”

Ierardi said the resources and the funding for JTF North’s operations still have a counter-drug emphasis.

“So, when we receive a request for support from law enforcement,” he said, “the first thing we have to determine is that there is a nexus to a counter-drug, or to international narcotics trafficking, and that it comes from an authorized federal law enforcement official to ask for that support, and that there is a distinct gain by a Department of Defense military component for providing that support.”

Last Tuesday, U.S. Army Col. Sean B. MacFarland assumed command of JTF North, replacing Brig. Gen. Ierardi, who has been reassigned to Afghanistan, where he will assist in the training and equipping of Afghan military and national security units.

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